The Japanese market of sex toys for men is an impressive array of human substitutes, most of which either appear to be sleepy or sleeping. Fully 30% to 50% of online catalogues feature such offerings, and new products are being released at a dizzying rate.
Browsing the sites, it's notable how many Japanese sex toys play on the notion of unconsciousness. Eyes closed, cut off from the real world by sleep, these dolls invite their human companions to follow them into a fantasy dreamworld.
This strange invitation is the subject of my latest paper, published this spring in the French anthropology journal Terrain.
The association of desire and sleep seems paradoxical. In trying to understand this market, I first looked at the physical shapes of these objects and the language that manufacturers and retailers use to describe them.
The company Dekunobô (木偶の坊), a leader in the "flesh pillow" sector, was founded in 2002 by Nobuyuki Kikuchi (菊地信行).
Starting then and continuing today, these sex toys - that is, dolls or body parts used for masturbation - are replicas of young women, sometimes pared down to the most basic female contours: a bolster cushion, for instance, or a vaguely human-like inflatable mattress.
These "bodies" come with interchangeable coverings and parts, from adjustable heads (featuring varied facial expressions) to wigs, legs and arms. There are optional breasts of all sizes, of course, plus stick-on nipples, disposable vaginas and more.
Without the jigsaw of their detachable limbs and other accoutrements, fresh-from-the-box human simulacra often resemble an inflatable or stuffed pillow.
That realisation feeds one subtle marketing strategy, in which these "therapeutic products" (iyashi gûzu, 癒しグーズ) are presented as aids for a restorative sleep, variously referred to as "head rests" (makura, 枕), "cushions" (kusshion, クッション) and "pillows" (pirô, ピロー).
When sold more explicitly as "sexual sensation cushions" (seikan kusshion, 性感クッション), the products are referred to as "sleeping companions" (surîpu konpanion, スリープ コンパニオン) or "body dolls" (bodi dôru, ボディドール).
From Venus bodies to tush cushions
In their most basic versions, these sex dolls are shaped like cushions that can be concealed within pillowcases. There are three main kinds of sleeping companions.
The most minimalist versions, such as the momojiri kusshion (桃尻クッション) (which roughly translates as "tush cushion"), are just rudimentary anatomical representations of female hips.
The "Venus body" (bînasu bodi ビーナスボディ) has suggestive contours inspired by curvaceous carved figurines of the Palaeolithic era. Bigger breasts can be added (see photo).
Finally, there are the flesh-coloured rectangles, which the Dekunobô company calls "cushion units furnished with a orifice" (hôru tsuki yunitto kusshion, ホール付きユニットクッション). Artificial vaginas can be inserted into all these items and removed for cleaning after use.
Dekunobô also sells an accessory that can transform any ordinary pillow into a sex partner. The "apron" (apuron, アプロン), which looks like a layer of skin with a pair of breasts and a vulva, can be attached to a bolster cushion or folded quilt to create the impression of a body.
At this stage in their evolution, the dolls are so similar to ordinary pillows that it's difficult to know whether they should be categorised as bedding or sex toys.
Many Japanese manufacturers accentuate this ambiguity in their marketing. The vocabulary used seems to be a conscious attempt to associate sex toys with pillows, which have positive connotations in Japan.
They give their products evocative names like kû pirô ("sleepy pillow") - a play on the word kû, meaning "empty" or "air" - or oppai makura ("breast pillow", オッパイ枕).
Other allusive appellations include the dî enu eâ piro ("inflatable DNA pillow", ディーエヌエアーピロー), the insatto hagu piro ("hug and penetrate pillow", インサットハグガールズピロー) and the nama rori pirô ("Lolita flesh pillow", 生ロリピロー).
Recently put up for sale by the brand Hot Powers, there is also a human-cushion hybrid called the "Lovely legs hopper pillow" (bikyaku hoppa pirô, 美脚ホッパッピロー), which has the upper body of a pillow and the lower body of a human.
It can be covered with a pillowcase featuring a trompe l'oeil image of a young woman to complete the effect.
Blurring the lines
Interestingly enough, the Hot Powers' Lovely legs hopper pillow is dressed as a miko, a Shinto shrine maiden, and presented as a "wife" that can "cross the barrier between dimensions" (Jigen no kabe o tobikoete, ore no yome 次元の壁を飛び越えて、俺の嫁).
This is a very specific cultural allusion. In the Japanese Shinto religion, gods can appear to humans in a wide range of shapes, including mountains, pebbles, horses, cucumbers, mirrors, brooms, children and, yes, anthropomorphic objects.
In an article titled "Substitutes, Tricks and Transformations", ethnologist Laurence Caillet notes that Shinto gods, having no inherent form of their own, move from object to object, both animate and inanimate.
Among the objects best able to welcome a "presence" are those that recall the idea of transportation and passage: vessels, pipes, any forms of receptacles, containers, hollow objects... Pillows also belong to that category. For aren't they ideal vehicles for crossing over and travelling in the land of dreams ? A person, using a pillow to rest his head, goes from the state of wakefulness to sleep, his body dissociating from his mind as he falls into an oniric world... Similarly, sexual dolls play the role of such an interface. They act as a specific medium which has the capacity to blur categories.
The same logic applies to the strategy of marketing sex toys as pillows. The idea is to transform the sexual playing field into a sacred space, one in which the supernatural existence of a young woman conjured from thin air is believable to the customer.
For sex pillows to bring satisfaction, users must pretend that there is a real presence behind the artificial, balloon-like object. As the anthropologist Albert Piette has said, believing means accepting fuzziness. In the case of sex toys, believing also means being able to cross boundaries.
The attraction of these Japanese simulacra no doubt lies, in part, in the seductive game of hide-and-seek: on one side of the pillowcase hides a lady; on the other, just a pillow.
With tush cushions and Lolita pillows, customers can tinker with appearances, control them or transcend them, encouraging men into a playful and even dream-like exercise in secular, sexual faith.
Agnès Giard, Associate researcher in Anthropology (Sophiapol, Paris Nanterre University), Université Paris Nanterre - Université Paris Lumières